“Have patience awhile; slanders are not long-lived. Truth is the child of time; erelong she shall appear to vindicate thee.” – Immanuel Kant
Listen. Do you hear it? A statement has been made by the people of the sixth Congressional district. They have stood up, and with a loud voice cried, “we have had enough!” They have rallied together and shown that this new Louisiana that we hear so much about is not just a brain child of the politicians. The people are tired of the old ways, and want to see a change as well.
During the Congressional race, one of the candidates, Paul Sawyer, decided to use a tried and true tactic. Negative campaigning. Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t particularly like a negative campaign, but there is a time and a place to point out the flaws of your opponent. In this case, however, an old mistake was dug up, twisted, and overblown. You are, one and all, already familiar with the attack, so I won’t burden you with specifics. Suffice it to say that I did the research, and found the attack, shall we say, lacking in substance? Still, this is not a condemnation of Paul Sawyer.
Without a doubt, Sawyer paid for his sharp tongue. His first attack was launched, and he slipped in the polls. His second aired and he slipped further, and on election day, the heir apparent, the chosen one, finished third in the primary, ending his chances to succeed his former employer. The target? Well, he faired better. The people recognized his integrity, and his determination to stick to what was important. Never did Woody Jenkins lash out at his foes, merely deflect the muck thrown his way. He handled the assault with dignity and class, and above all else, he stayed on message.
Two candidates remain in the race, now, and let this be a lesson. Neither candidate holds the nomination as of yet. Both Woody Jenkins and Laurinda Calongne have an opportunity to get their message out to the people of the sixth district. I urge you both, do not wander off of the path. The temptation to attack is strong, but we are all on the same team here. Remember, your values are what we are interested in. Be forthright and honest. Speak to the people of your plans, and they will respond. If you find yourself in a desperate place, trailing your opponent, hold firm to your resolve. Bring your message, and let the people decide, and truth, the child of time, will vindicate you.
SOME LIKE IT HOT TRADITIONALISTS SCOFF AT BARON BAPTISTE’S “POWER YOGA,” BUT HIS SWEATY STUDENTS ARE HOOKED.
The Boston Globe (Boston, MA) April 1, 2001 | Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff “Don’t be afraid to go fast,” Baron Baptiste is saying, padding barefoot around his yoga studio in Cambridge’s Porter Square. It’s Friday night, the end of the workweek, and some 50 to 60 devo tees are earnestly listening to his inspirational patter and following his commands. Baptiste is leading them through a challenging series called the sun salutation, a flowing combination of postures that looks like a graceful bow but actually requires coordination, flexibility, and upper-body strength. “You can drive your car 3 miles an hour and hit a brick wall, or you can drive your car 80 miles an hour and just float,” he says. The students speed up, ever so slightly.
“You can be in a hurry and be a yogi.” They pick up the pace.
“You can be a race car driver and be a yogi.” They go even faster.
“You’re racing, but inwardly, you’re in the eye of the storm.” Together, they breathe a collective sigh.
Race cars? Illegal speeds? Clearly, this is not the sort of sleepy, meditative practice that most people associate with the ancient tradition of yoga. Sure, the air is redolent with incense, the lights are dim, and the class begins with the ritual chanting of om, the Sanskrit mantra that evokes the essence of the universe. But the heat is on – cranked up to 90 degrees or more – and bodies are crammed into every corner of the no-frills space. Middle-aged men in boxer shorts park their mats next to recent college graduates in sports bras and spandex leggings. Space is tight, so people are positioned just a few inches apart. Occasionally, body parts brush against each other. And the sweat – well, the place is like a sauna. The salty stuff is everywhere, running down people’s faces, splattering on the floor boards, collecting in puddles like rain. Every now and then, someone wipes a moist brow, sending droplets flying.
Meanwhile, Baptiste walks around this crucible with a kind of Buddha-like composure, taking slow, measured steps and, in a long- sleeved T-shirt and shorts, looking as if he just stepped off a sailboat and can still feel the cool sea breeze. “Suffering is optional,” he says. He then turns up the thermostat, and more than a few students groan. “Where else do you get to work your body like this?” he asks.
“Hades,” someone answers.
“Hell took all the glory. This is heaven,” Baptiste says. “You didn’t know heaven was so hot. This is healing heat. This is heavenly heat. This is warm toffee.” Indeed, the heat, which loosens the muscles and makes the body more supple, is central to Baron Baptiste’s “power yoga,” a rigorous routine that blends ancient Eastern practices with a Western-style aero bic workout. Baptiste says that he is demystifying the foreign, sometimes off-putting parts of yoga – the chanting, the Sanskrit, the meditation, the spirituality – and making it accessible for fast- paced, goal-driven Americans. Since he opened his studio in 1999, he has attracted a devoted (if not cultish) following, drawing more than 1,000 students a week to a space that has none of the amenities offered by even the most basic of gyms. There are no showers, no dressing rooms, no lockers, no whirlpools. There is a single bathroom in the basement, and the line often snakes up the narrow staircase before and after class. There aren’t even any memberships; students pay $10 per class, on a first-come, first-served basis.
And come they do, from Cambridge, from Boston, from the suburbs. The Baptiste Power Yoga Institute’s success is part of a national yoga phenomenon: As baby boomers age, their bodies are suffering the wear and tear of years of running, aero bics, weight lifting, kickboxing, and other fitness trends. Baptiste calls them the “walking wounded” or “aero bics refugees.” More and more Americans are being drawn to yoga for its health benefits, which include weight loss, muscle toning, strength, flexibility, and, as a bonus, a sense of inner tranquillity. Everyone is doing it, from grandmothers at adult education centers to celebrities in Hollywood. Practitioners include Madonna, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sting. Model Christy Turlington has her own line of body-hugging yoga wear. Baptiste has his own list of celebrity clients, including Raquel Welch, Helen Hunt, and Elisabeth Shue. He says he turned down a request to train Madonna: He just didn’t have time.
A few local celebrities have crossed the threshold of the Cambridge studio. Cam Neely is a convert, and Max Kennedy of the Boston-Hyannis clan is a regular in Baptiste’s classes. It was Kennedy (his main political claim to fame is that he ran his Uncle Ted’s recent campaign for reelection to the Senate) who first encouraged Baptiste to open a studio in Boston. But the clientele consists mostly of regular folks, doctors and lawyers and computer geeks and writers and students who come for the workout and pick up a little Eastern philosophy on the side.
For all its popularity, this 21st-century yoga is creating a rift in the yoga world, a small community that is not immune to the backstabbing and infighting of corporate circles. On the one hand, purists contend that the term “power yoga” is an oxymoron, that yoga, by its very nature, is a meditative practice concerned with cultivating personal peace rather than building spectacular pecs. On the other hand, charismatic teachers like Baptiste insist that they are making the ancient tradition accessible to Westerners who would otherwise be turned off by crunchy-granola chanting and mysticism.
But the disagreement among the yoga elites doesn’t seem to matter to the students at the studio, where Baptiste coaches them through sweaty sessions, serving as a kind of combination new age philosopher, motivational expert, and personal trainer: “Love your body. Don’t push, don’t force, just flow.” In the heat of the moment, this fortune-cookie philosophy keeps the students from collapsing in a soggy heap. Alyssa Sullivan, for one, is a trained ballet dancer and a longtime aero bics instructor who is a regular at the Baptiste studio. She has followed all the major fitness trends over the years, pounding her body in search of the ultimate workout or, more aptly, the ultimate sensual experience. “After class, you feel like you’ve just had a massage, went to church, had sex, and worked out,” she says. “It’s the real deal.” S ex and sweat probably weren’t the first things on the mind of Swami Vivekananda, the Indian guru who introduced Americans to yoga when he addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Yoga is a 5,000-year-old monastic tradition in India, a spiritual practice that requires mental and physical discipline. Other gurus followed Vivekananda to the United States over the years, but yoga didn’t really gain widespread popularity in this country until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when hippies searching for a higher consciousness took up chanting, meditation, and yoga postures.
But in 1955, a bodybuilder and former Mr. America named Walt Baptiste opened a yoga studio in San Francisco, assisted by his wife, Magana, a dancer. Their third child, Baron, was born in 1963; along with his two older sisters, he was exposed to Eastern philosophy and practices at a young age. His parents would frequently pull the children out of the public schools in San Francisco for extended trips to India; at age 12, Baron was sent off for three months to live in an Indian ashram, or secluded religious community, with 300 boys who were studying to be Vedic monks. His days began with chanting and meditation at 4 a.m., followed by hours of chores and scriptural study.
It was good training for a future yogi, but back home in San Francisco, it set him apart from his peers, who were into the usual American pastimes and cliques. “I grew up being teased quite a bit,” Baptiste recalls. “I was one of those kids who would show up at school with wheat bread instead of white bread.” This was the late ’60s and early ’70s, the days when yoga was associated with Hare Krishnas in orange robes. “I grew up around everyone thinking that yoga was about wheat grass or peace, love, and granola,” Baptiste says. “I went out of my way to fit in.” The adult Baptiste isn’t trying to fit in. Instead, he has a certain missionary zeal, as if power yoga is some sort of secular religion, and he is its chief priest. “No one on God’s green earth tells Baron what to say or do,” says Rolf Glessner Gates, a former social worker and yogi who teaches full time at the Cambridge studio and shares the master’s sin gle-mind ed ness.
Baptiste, who is 37, says yoga seemed “kind of weird” to him as a teenager, when he excelled in martial arts and boxing. He didn’t become deadly serious about the discipline until he was 20 and living in Los Angeles, where he took classes at the University of California but dropped out before getting a degree. He fell under the tutelage of Bikram Choudhury, a charismatic figure and self-described “yogi to the stars” who runs the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills. After teaching for a few months at Choudhury’s Paris school, Baptiste set off on his own, developing a signature style, attracting a celebrity clientele, and building a profitable business. He now teaches seminars and yoga boot camps all over the world and sells his popular videos on the QVC Shopping Network. He’s the Ron Popeil of yoga, strutting his stuff in 30-minute infomercials and offering the promise of renewed vigor and vitality. here prana power yoga
He is quick to go into his spiel: Power yoga, he says, is not just for mystics and meditators. In fact, he says his American-style system is actually superior to Eastern practices. “The new yoga in America is a little bit more sane, a little bit more clean, a little bit more refined than what you get over in India.” A few years back, this practiced pitchman had to sell yoga to the members of the Philadelphia Eagles when owner Jeffrey Lurie hired him as the team’s “peak performance specialist” in 1995. At first, Baptiste, buff but compact at 5 feet 10, met considerable resistance from the players, who felt yoga was too effeminate for the bruisers of the National Football League. “Yoga carries a connotation of being weird or out there,” Baptiste says. “Like any product, it’s all in the packaging. Even if the contents is wonderful, if you give it bad packaging, people are going to miss it.” He “packaged” his training sessions as a way to reduce stress, increase flexibility and agility, and ease pain. Quite a few of the players bought it. And Denver Broncos bad boy Bill Romanowski, a former Eagle, even gives a flattering testimonial on Baptiste’s infomercial. “My goal,” Baptiste says, “was to get my hands on these guys and get them to experience what I had to offer.” Clearly, Baptiste doesn’t suffer from an inferiority complex. Even while pacing barefoot in the heat of the classroom, he carries himself with a sort of barnyard self-assurance. It’s the first thing his wife, Dana Baptiste, noticed about him when they met a little more than a decade ago at a health spa in Mexico where she was teaching aero bics. “I shouldn’t say this, but I couldn’t stand him when I first met him,” she recalls. “He was very boastful and swaggering around the spa: You could tell he thought very highly of himself. A lot of the other women were all googoo, gaga around him, but that was not my first impression at all.” So much for first impressions: They’ve been married for eight years. They’re like yin and yang. She’s linear and practical, while he’s creative and idealistic. He constantly dreams up proj ects and ideas; she makes him finish them. When they decided to move from Philadelphia to Boston in 1999, they set up the studio as a team. But after Dana gave birth to their third son last year, the family moved to a ranch in Utah. She and the boys live there full time, and her husband commutes from Cambridge. It’s not an ideal arrangement, they say, but it works for now. go to web site prana power yoga
Baptiste, after all, is incredibly focused. Every conversation leads to yoga, yoga, yoga and how to sell it to the masses. “That’s a big part of who he is,” his wife explains. “He is a capitalist, and he doesn’t pretend to be any different. He is trying to make a name for himself and support his family. He is living the American dream, and he is doing it with an Eastern discipline.” To be sure, his infomercials are the very essence of American capitalism. Baptiste is a salesman in the style of the great hawkers who peddled slicer-dicer machines at country carnivals and on beach board walks. “Do you want to be more toned?” asks Baptiste, muscles rippling, in his latest infomercial. “Do you want to feel more youthful and alive?” You, too, can “find out what makes your heart sing” – all for three payments of $19.95, with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Purists see this sort of commercialism – the marketing of yoga as a miracle cure – as just one sign that this ancient tradition is being watered down for Americans in search of a quick fix. Yoga, they say, is not a guaranteed weight-loss workout to be sold on television; it’s a monastic discipline that needs to be cultivated over years of study and meditation. The harsh est critics contend that power yoga isn’t really yoga at all: It’s a form of aero bics. “They’re doing it to make money,” says Bikram Choudhury, a flamboyant Indian-born yogi who wears a Speedo bathing suit and a diamond- studded Rolex when he teaches at his Beverly Hills studio. “But why use the name yoga when you don’t sell the real thing? When I sell you a bicycle, I don’t call it a motorcycle. When I sell you a dog, I don’t call it a goat. That is my philosophical problem.” Choudhury is particularly vehement when it comes to Baptiste, a former student. “I raised him like a little kid, from A-B-C-D. I taught him everything,” he says. “And he’s not doing yoga. He’s doing aero bic exercise. He’s doing Jane Fonda.” Of course, Baptiste and other devo tees of power yoga beg to differ. “He’ll say whatever he has to to get a rise,” Baptiste says of his former teacher, noting that he learned yoga from his parents long before he met Choudhury. “That’s how the Indians are with their guru mentality. It’s like you do it their way or you hit the highway.” And Baptiste is certainly not the only teacher forging a new path. The term “power yoga” was first used in 1995 as the title of a book by Beryl Bender Birch, a New York instructor who was teaching yoga for serious athletes in the New York Runners Club. Around the same time, a teacher named Bryan Kest was using the term in Los Angeles. Birch isn’t particularly territorial about the name; she says she came up with the term while meditating and initially used it to let Americans know that this was not some wimpy workout. Recently, Birch was singled out by the Indian guru Patthabi Jois, who criticized power yoga and accused her of watering down the Indian tradition as a way to make money. “There is a whole deification proc ess that says things can only be one way,” Birch says, “and if you deviate from it, you’re blaspheming the almighty.” Some purists – Birch calls them fundamentalists – have complained that Baptiste, who is as smooth and savvy as a politician, courts the media and is a publicity hound. Birch, for one, rises to his defense. “It’s better that the press writes about Baron teaching yoga to the Philadelphia Eagles than about someone being stabbed to death in Brooklyn,” she says, adding that such publicity has contributed to the surge of yoga in the United States.
Yet, traditionalists who have been teaching yoga in this country for decades are concerned that the spiritual center of yoga is being lost in this celebrity-driven, fashion-conscious phenomenon. They cringe when they think of the body-beautiful types in color- coordinated spandex outfits preening in front of mirrors. They shudder when they think of cellphones ringing in class. They grimace when they see a tradition that is supposed to be about inner truth become as trendy and superficial as yesterday’s designer latte. And, they ask, what’s all this talk about “demystifying” yoga? Why change something that’s endured for 5,000 years? “The definition of yoga is to yoke or to join, to join the body and the mind,” says Patricia Walden, a nationally known teacher who directs the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Center in Somerville. “If you are doing it purely for physical reasons, you might as well call it something else.” But in this fast-paced, rapidly changing culture, what’s wrong with attracting folks with a catchy name like power yoga if it gets them in the door? Devo tees of Baptiste say they initially go for the physical workout, but over time, they absorb the spiritual benefits without even trying and learn to quiet their minds even as they tone their muscles. It’s hard not to absorb some Eastern philosophy in Baptiste’s classes, and some students are ultimately inspired to study Sanskrit or take up Zen meditation. “It’s like a back door to spirituality,” says Kate Churchill, a co-producer for Evolution, a new series from WGBH’s Nova, and a serious athlete who is a convert to power yoga.
The anteroom of Baptiste’s Power Yoga Institute is unimpressive, a glorified coat room that becomes a claustrophobe’s nightmare when it’s filled with students waiting for class. The walls are adorned with photographs of Baptiste. There he is on the cover of Visions magazine. There he is featured in Sports Illustrated. There he is balancing his body in a gravity-defying posture. And inside the studio, there he is posing with Ricky Waters, a former running back for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Traditionally, the discipline of yoga has valued inner tranquillity over physical beauty, mind over matter. So what’s up with all the flattering photographs? Baptiste just smiles enigmatically. But his fellow teacher, Gates, has a ready answer. “Those photos are about excellence,” he explains. “They say: `You can’t devalue me. If you have a problem with what is happening here, it’s your problem, not mine.’ ” Baptiste is the public face of the operation, and Gates is the behind-the-scenes philosopher. An imposing figure with a bald pate and an Army Ranger tattoo that is a relic of his years in the elite military corps, he abandoned a career in social work after Baptiste came to town. He dropped out of a master’s program at Smith College to teach yoga full time. To Gates, yoga is a higher calling, a ministry of both the body and the soul. Yoga is about plumbing the depths, about renouncing mediocrity and becoming magnificent. In a way, it’s like the Army jingle: “Be all that you can be.” What could be more American at its core?
Both Gates and Baptiste are adamant that the only way to attract Americans to the benefits of yoga is to speak to them in their own language. “If you are a social worker, and you are working in a Latino neighborhood, you better know Spanish, and you better not have English hunting scenes on your walls,” Gates says. “And if you are teaching yoga to American students, you better make your classroom accessible to your students and make sure you’re sensitive to their values and belief systems.” Many students who attend classes at the Power Yoga Institute say that they would never have set foot inside the door if they thought the teacher would be a mystical figure sitting in the lotus position and chanting in Sanskrit. Baptiste’s wife is a case in point. When she first met her future husband, she was a hard-core aero bics instructor; today, she teaches yoga exclusively. “Back then, the Eastern philosophy was too weird for me,” she says. “I never would have gotten into it if it had been dressed up with the guru thing. If Baron had chanted the first time I took his class, I would have walked right out.” But some yoga traditionalists say that Baptiste’s style is too loose, in more ways than one. Indeed, some complain that he doesn’t explain enough about the individual yoga postures; all students, young or old, experienced or neophyte, get the same treatment. Baptiste doesn’t demonstrate as he teaches; he just talks the class through a flowing series of postures, punctuating his directions with inspirational stories. Everyone is thrown into the crucible, and when class begins, it’s you and your mat. Each class is a physical and mental challenge; it’s hard to explain it, but when it’s over, you feel as if you’ve been to the top of a mountain and back, even though you’ve spent the last hour and a half on a 6-by-2-foot mat, surrounded on all sides in a dark room thick with the smell of sweat.
“Most people don’t believe in themselves in general, but I believe in their ability,” says Baptiste. “If you throw them into it, suddenly, they’re like, `Wow, this is incredible. I had no idea I had this in me.’ It’s not like traditional yoga, where teachers hold people’s hands each step of the way.” For all the controversy, he must be doing something right: His classes are always packed, and he’s sold more than 300,000 of his power yoga videos. And converts speak about power yoga in reverential terms, as if they’ve found a new religion. “Baron is a gatekeeper; he has opened the gate to a whole new path that I didn’t know existed,” says Nova’s Churchill. “You will follow him to places that you didn’t know existed. That is thrilling. And I really believe that if everyone did yoga, the world would be a better place.” Baptiste himself doesn’t suggest that yoga can provide a formula for global improvement. But he is single-minded. His life is his teaching. In his classes, he coaxes gently, with a voice as lulling as a calm ocean. He offers little inspirational aphorisms while he’s telling students to breathe through a position that makes their shoulders burn and their calf muscles flare. Their bodies are screaming, and he’s cheerfully saying, “Bring some sunshine into your spine.” It’s infuriating; it’s invigorating. It requires a can-do spirit – and that, perhaps, is what makes it so appealing to Americans.
“Love your body,” Baptiste tells the Friday class. “If you’re a Type A, less is more. If you’re a Type B, more is more.” You don’t hear that kind of advice in India. “Challenge yourself, but passionately.” And remember, suffering is optional.
Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff